Metalhead is the tale of Hera, a young Icelandic woman who witnesses the tragic death of her beloved older brother at a young age. Set in the early 90’s, the film focuses on Hera as well as her parents; simple dairy farmers in a remote area of the country. A poignant scene early on in the movie has the young Hera burning all of her childish clothes in a tribute to her rock’n’roll loving brother, donning his leather jacket and guitar before attempting to skip town. Cut to a much older Hera, still adorned in the leathers and a Motorhead shirt and still on the farm. This young adult is a recluse, tending to the cows with her headphones blaring Judas Priest. The “black sheep” cliché isn’t overplayed here, even with the constant visual reminders that she is clearly a wolf among said sheep.
A movie titled Metalhead requires a soundtrack fitting for the tale and director Ragnar Bragason and his team hit the Svarthamar right on the nail with their choice of diagetic and non diagetic music. Framing the evolution of metal perfectly, Hera’s own tastes mature as she becomes aware of the Norwegian black metal movement (through real news footage of the early days of the church burning days), culminating in a remarkably odd scene in the barn; Hera recording her first foray into black metal while the camera cuts to shots of the captive audience of dairy cattle, oblivious to their surroundings. This could be seen as a visual metaphor for music itself, sitting idle while the world of metal rapidly evolves around it. The film’s original score is heavy with booming horns and somber strings that creep into existence when Hera reaches the pinnacle of her descent into despair. When things get dark, figuratively and literally, the score follows suit.
One of the most intriguing elements of this movie are the interactions between Hera and the newly appointed local priest. The well documented relations between the church and the world of metal would appear to be obvious (a church gets burnt to the ground for goodness sake) but here lies a man of the cloth that is also a metalhead. Hera finds herself warming to this man as not only a friend, but also a beacon of hope of finding someone that views the world in the same light as her. When the priest rejects her advances she feels cheated and, in her despondence, burns down the local church in an act of anger and confusion. This is a far cry from the church burnings in Norway where the culprits were violent in their actions against organized religion. This is someone who feels completely let down by God, acting out in despair as her life loses more meaning by the day. As the community bands together, young and old come out to help rebuild the church. All too aware that their community is all they have to separate themselves from the cattle they rear, this is a moment that could summarize the relationship between fans of metal itself. If we don’t have each other then we really are just animals.
Visually, Metalhead is stunning. The summer colors of the halcyon days in the opening minutes soon bleed out into cold blues and greys; a color palette that fully encapsulates the confounded misery that a grieving family cannot seem to get away from. Throughout the movie, the only time we see the light of day is when Hera is perched on her bed, headphones plugged into the rock and roll that she retreats into. It’s a pretty simple technique but it reinforces the point that music is her guiding light in a time where she is understandably lost. The further into Hera’s parents acceptance of the lifestyle of their daughter, the more color reenters the screen. Gone is the bleak, washed out monochrome of winter, with sunshine beaming into the bedroom where all three dance wildly to Megadeth‘s ‘Symphony of Destruction’. It’s a touching moment that lets the audience witness a family finding each other, albeit using the strangest of tools to get there.
This is an honest and captivating movie that puts an all too familiar character in the forefront. Fans of extreme music around the world have all been asked “Why can’t you be normal for once?”, or words to that extent. The acceptance of Hera and her not so accessible taste in music is finally found when her newly formed band take to the stage to perform. The initial reaction of the audience is hilarious but even the most stoic among them start tapping their feet along to the tormented musings on display. It’s a cheesy line but music really can bring people together, even in the worst of moments. Metalhead is the perfect antidote to the atypical Hollywood story of an outsider trying to find their own way, as it is much more than that. It is an examination of how people react when dealing with a great loss, told beautifully with the help of first hand knowledge of the life of an ostracized youth.